The Highs of Mencía – Exploring Spain’s Ribeira Sacra

Mencía, a varietal unique to Portugal’s Dao and Spain’s Bierzo and Galicia regions, reaches its most exciting heights on the steep riverside vineyards of Ribeira Sacra in the center of Spain’s Galicia region.

MenciaMencía is high in anthocyanins (red pigment), so its wines typically show a deep red color even when grown in cooler vineyards. And it’s high in terpenoids, aroma compounds that deliver bold scents of fresh flowers, raspberry, strawberry, pomegranate and sweet cherry. A bold dose of cracked peppery spice, a touch of something leafy green (think Cab Franc), and a dollop of crushed gravel minerality round out the fascinating aromatic and flavor profile.

What does Mencía taste like? Well – if you like the aromas and silkiness of Pinot Noir, the herbal snap of cool-climate Cabernet, and the plump, direct, fruit of Cru Beaujolais, these wines are sure to thrill.

As Neal Martin wrote in Wine Advocate a few years ago:

“I found the wines of Ribeira Sacra immediately attractive, not because they are powerful, ineffably complex or built for the long-term. No, I enjoyed their sense of purity and their complete lack of pretention. I enjoyed these wines because they spoke of their place, harnessing the Mencía grape variety to conjure crisp, fresh, vivacious wines that are born to marry with the local cuisine. The finest wines are those whereby I could envisage one finishing a bottle and yearning for another drop – a virtue all too often forgotten in this day and age.”

From Romans, to Monks, to Today
First planted by the Romans to provide wine to overseers and slaves working the goldmines of Bierzo to the east, Ribeira Sacra’s vineyards tumble down hills sloped 50 to 85 degrees (remember – 90 degrees is straight down!), often running along terraces first carved by the Romans. Replanted by monks in the Middle Ages to serve the 18 monasteries and hermitages that dot the region’s hills and valleys, the vineyards were once again largely abandoned in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Today, the region’s most visionary, committed, hard working and talented wine grower, Pedro Rodriguez Perez, comes from a family that kept up the struggle during these times, making wine selling it in garrafones – 20 liter glass containers – to local bars and families.

In 1991, when Pedro was still a teenager, he and his parents decided to bottle their own wine and named their estate Guímaro – dialect for “rebel,” the family nickname for his grandfather.

steep vineyards of ribera sacra

Doug and winemaker Pedro Rodriguez in the steep Ribeira Sacra vineyards.

Pedro and his parents (still in the vineyards daily!) work their vineyards organically and by hand (because machines are impossible here). The whole bunches are sorted and then go into tank where they are trod by foot to release some juice and then allowed to ferment with native yeast. Then into a mixture of large oak tanks and barrels of various sizes (all used) to smooth out before blending and bottling with minimal sulfur.

We spent a day with Pedro in March at the winery, tasting his 2017s and 2018s to come. Pedro took time out of his day not only for the tasting, but to hike the vineyards with us (don’t look down!) and then treated us to a Galician lunch of squid, octopus and rare local beef.

Tasting his wines today recaptures that amazing experience. We have two on sale this week. Like Pedro himself, these are wines of fantastic joy, intense focus, and – importantly – serious fun.

Guimaro wines

  • The 2016 Camino Real (93 points Wine Advocate; 95 points Suckling) is at once rich and light. Aromas of fresh red berries, cracked pepper, leafy herb and sweet spice carry through to a palate that combines a velvety mouthfeel with energetic verve and sublime grace. Every sip reveals a new combination of flavors that flow beautifully into the silky, kaleidoscopic, finish. From a best in the USA $22.98/ea, this is fabulous now through 2026.
  • The 2015 A Ponte (95 points from both Wine Advocate and Suckling) is stunning at multiple levels. From a very young vineyard, it somehow delivers old-vine intensity in a wine almost translucent in color and weightless on the palate. As Suckling writes, “Detail is the key. Great length and depth. Toasty, plush finish.” We have only five cases available (the region’s allocation) of this rare (165 cases) gem from $49.98.

These are some of the very finest wines produced to date in Ribeira Sacra, made by the region’s leading winegrower from amazing vineyards old and young. We cannot recommend them to you highly enough.

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Montedinoli: A San Gimignano Story

Montenidoli logoThe wines of Montedinoli are utterly and captivatingly unique – which makes sense, because 83 year-old winegrower Elisabetta Fagiuoli’s story is uniquely captivating as well.

elisabetta of MontedinoliThe story starts in 1965 when she and Sergio Muratori arrived in these forested hills above San Gimignano in 1965 with their nine children. At the top of the highest hill in the 900-acre reserve they’d purchased, they found an abandoned vineyard. It had been first planted by the Etruscans, later farmed by Romans and finally worked by the Knights Templar, who in the 13th Century also build the home Elisabetta occupies today.

Building on History
Inspired by the few remaining vines and the Knights Templar’s ancient olive trees, Sergio and Elisabetta began carving out what would become a 57-acre vineyard among the nooks and crannies of their hills. Rather than purchase vines from a nursery, they took cuttings and seeds from the remaining vines and propagated their own unique clones of Sangiovese, Vernaccia, Malvasia Bianca and Canaiolo.

From the beginning, Elisabetta worked their vineyards and vines naturally. She’s never used chemical fertilizers, herbicides or fungicides here, treating the vines as little as possible with sulfur and copper. Grapes are picked by hand, sorted, crushed, and fermented with native yeasts in concrete tank (the reds) or temperature controlled stainless steel (the whites). Reds move to old barrels to finish fermentation and rest. Whites remain on their lees to gain an added layer of richness and texture.

Wines for Insiders … and Now for Us!
Montenidoli wines.pngTuscan insiders have known Elisabetta’s wines and lauded her as the finest grower in San Gimignano for years. But small production levels and Elisabetta’s persnickety approach to selecting her customers prevented much of her wine from reaching the US market over the years – until now.

We don’t’ know exactly how importer John Grimsley persuaded Elisabetta to part with so much of her wine for us and you. But you can find out for yourself what was required – and why the effort was worth it! – if you come by Saturday from noon-4pm and try the wines with John. Or stop by Friday from 3-7 (John won’t be here, but the wines can speak for themselves).

If you love great Tuscan wines, you’ll adore Montenidoli. And if you’ve never quite found Sangiovese or Vernaccia that captivated and convinced you? Well these are the bottles that will get the job done!

A Wonderful Valencia Surprise

Pago Gran with glassSo super-Spanish importer Jonas Gustafsson shows up at the tasting table one day and says, “I’ve got some really exciting wines from Valencia.” Now “exciting wine from Valencia” is a bit like “jumbo shrimp” or “military intelligence” – words that don’t seem to go together. After all, Valencia is baking hot, bone dry, and mainly turns out coarse, heavy, thick reds for the bulk trade.

I was skeptical.

But leave it to Jonas to discover Pago Casa Gran, an estate that does pretty much everything the exact opposite way from anyone else in the Levante. Founded by Spanish wine industry veterans in 2006, they farm their old vines organically – actually beyond organically as they have adopted the incredibly stringent Delinat guidelines for soil health and biodiversity.

The Grapes That Make Sense
Unlike international-style, consultant-driven, wineries in Jumilla and Alicante, they grow only the grapes that actually make sense for Valencia: Monastrell (Mouvedre), Syrah, and Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouschet) – no Cabernet Sauvignon to be seen. In a region where most everyone sprays herbicides to kill off “weeds” and ensure all of the limited rainfall goes to their grapes, they encourage extensive cover crops (year-round where possible) to protect the soil and naturally fix nitrogen (so no fertilizers needed).

In bulk wine production, growers here usually either do pretty much nothing to their vines – minimizing labor costs – or aggressively pull leaves from the vines so that groaning high yields of grapes can bake their way to ripeness.

Careful Vineyard Work; Gentle, Natural Fermentation
At Pago Casa Gran they work their vineyards all year long, thinning bunches and shoots and leaves so that balanced yields of grapes can ripen fully without developing cooked or dried fruit flavors.

They harvest by hand and plot and grape varietal, allowing them to get perfect ripeness and tailor each fermentation batch to the grape and soil type. Where others add cultured yeast and enzymes for consistency and extraction, at Pago Gran Casa they allow the yeast from the vineyards and winery to work on their own, developing complexity and sense of place. And, instead of large, bulk, fermenters that have to be pumped full of grape juice and then pumped out again to barrel, they use small tanks and a crane – lifting each fermenter up to allow the juice to flow out naturally and gently when it’s done.

Hard work, great vineyards and growing the right grapes all come together in these three fantastic wines from Pago Gran Casa. All have plenty of rich, ripe, fruit – we are in the south of Spain, after all! – but deliver it with remarkable freshness and complexity. If you think Spanish wines have to be heavy, thick, and overly oaked, these will change your mind.

And, if you love Spanish wines and appreciate Jonas’s other selections – well, then, Pago Gran Casa is about to become another in a long line of favorites. You can find out more about them on our website. Don’t miss them!

Pago Gran Wines

 

Disappearing Wineries & Private Label Wines – A Few Questions Answered

question-marks-pictureRecently, you’ve had some questions that remind us of how different it is to select what wines we carry at our store versus a mainstream retail store.

We don’t want to bring you mass-market wines, and that means our inventory changes constantly. Sometimes a distributor will stop carrying one of our favorites, or the importer will stop importing it. And with some of our value wines, an under $10 find in one vintage can become a cheap not-so-good wine the next. And … sometimes a winery just disappears.

Here are some of the questions we’ve heard lately … let us know if you have some others!

What happened to Owl House Red?  We know, we know, Owl House was the perfect house red! But it is no longer. Gallo bought the winery last year, and while it kept the vineyards for its own wines, it shut down the winery. If you’re looking for a new house red – try La Playa Cabernet Sauvignon.  It’s a big mouthful of lush round fruit with the same kiss of toasty oak and soft finish that made Owl House so popular ($6.98/ea by the case). And a big source for crowd-pleasing, affordable reds these days is Spain … you might also try Bodegas Borsao Garnacha – $8.99 a bottle.

When’s Villa Jolanda Holiday Sparkler coming in?  Actually, this one’s easy. As always, it will arrive Thanksgiving week and be featured the following Saturday as part of our huge Small Business Saturday sale!

Where’s Riebeek Chardonnay?  After being out of stock at the distributor, it’s back in stock again! This South African winery has become synonymous with under $10 tasty wine values recently. And for those of you who love the Sauv Blanc – we have the 2014 in stock now at $7.98, $6.98 on a case.

I had a wine at a friend’s house/when traveling and loved it! Do you carry it?  We love this question. There are so many wines out there, and we are always learning about new ones. In fact, we have a few in inventory that came to us through a customer’s comments. And we are always happy to special order wines for you when we can.

But sometimes we can’t. State law requires we buy all our wines through a Virginia distributor, and some wines simply don’t come into Virginia.  Or sometimes the wines do come into Virginia, but they’ve been picked up by Safeway or Total. These stores slash their margins on certain wines to attract customers, planning to make up their profits other ways. It doesn’t make sense for us to carry them at a higher price – that wouldn’t help you.

And sometimes that bottle you enjoyed was actually private label wine! Both Total and Trader Joe’s buy surplus juice and have wineries make wines under a special label developed by those stores. This way, these stores control both the costs and the profit margin (one way they make up for the steep discounts on those other wines). These can be good wines (even though the names are made up), but we certainly can’t get them!

So we choose to introduce you to the wines the big stores won’t carry –  wines that are as good (or better), from wineries that don’t spend a lot of money on marketing – these are the wines we look to bring to you.

Have another question? Keep asking! We’re here to answer them.